This promised to be a long and heavily-charged week, with all sorts of meetings and activities going on. The early morning was spent in the Directors’ Committee discussing promotions. Such meetings are always potentially fraught, but this one could not have been more collegial and consensual. It was followed by the so-called ‘pre-session’ meeting, where all of the concerned services go through the draft agendas of the Bureau and the Plenary Session to make sure that everything is under control and well-prepared. When I worked in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, such meetings were held early in the morning of every day when the assembly met and were nick-named ‘morning masses’! In the afternoon I spoke to a group of visiting civil servants on a sort of Erasmus programme run by the European Administrative School. Despite having the death slot – immediately after lunch – I encouraged a number of pertinent questions about the political and administrative paradoxes the Committee faces. Then, in the evening, to the writers’ group. My ‘exercise’ was triggered by a question from my daughter about whether I could remember the first book that had made an impression on me. I could, and I imagine (or would like to hope) that most people can. Actually, my exercise is a bit of a white lie. The first book to make an impression on me was the Felix the Cat Annual. Somewhere there is a school photograph of me holding the book with a great big smile on my face but, in fact, that was the only time I ever touched the flaming thing. It was so popular that it was permanently out on loan and it was only lucky coincidence that it was on the classroom bookshelf on the day the school photographer came!
A book that affected me
Just recently, my daughter asked me if I could remember the first book I read that had an affect on me. Many books have affected me, but to my surprise, almost, I was immediately able to reply with the one book that made a deep impression on me early in my life and probably therefore contributed to my ever-growing desire to wield words and emotions as its author was so able to do.
The book was J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet. I was (I am told) an avid reader from the age of four onwards, and I rapidly gravitated onto more ‘grown-up’ books, which I borrowed from my parent’s bookshelves. I would not hazard a guess as to my exact age when I started to read Moonfleet, but I shall never forget the impression the following passage made on me:
‘It must have been past four o’clock in the afternoon, and I was for returning to tea at my aunt’s, when underneath the stone on which I sat I heard a rumbling and crumbling, and on jumping off saw that the crack in the ground had still further widened, just where it came up to the tomb, and that the dry earth had so shrunk and settled that there was a hole in the ground a foot or more across. Now this hole reached under the big stone that formed one side of the tomb, and falling on my hands and knees and looking down it, I perceived that there was under the monument a larger cavity, into which the hole opened. I believe there never was boy yet who saw a hole in the ground, or a cave in a hill, or much more an underground passage, but longed incontinently to be into it and discover whither it led. So it was with me and seeing that the earth had fallen enough into the hole to open a way under the stone, I slipped myself in feet foremost, dropped down on to a heap of fallen mould, and found that I could stand upright under the monument itself.’
To a young boy with a healthy imagination this seemed so entirely plausible. Later I realised that similar scenes are often used to lead our imaginations into other worlds (the smugglers’ world in the case of Moonfleet, but think of the back of that wardrobe leading to Narnia…). I was completely hooked on the story and, indeed, have remained completely hooked on the story ever since.